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Stakes could hardly be higher for RTÉ as Cabinet anger runs deep

Sequence of exit deal for former chief financial officer produces contrasting stories and ultimate departure of chairwoman Siún Ní Raghallaigh

Another day, another RTÉ disaster. Director general Kevin Bakhurst is staying put — and so too the RTÉ board. But there is still no end to the ructions. “If we weren’t eating ourselves we’d be fine,” said one battle-scarred Montrose figure.

After Siún Ní Raghallaigh abruptly quit as chairwoman of the station’s governing body, there was talk the rest of the board might soon follow when it was summonsed to an emergency meeting on Friday. That didn’t happen, although the schism with the Government only sharpened when the board and Minister for Media Catherine Martin issued conflicting statements about the confidential exit deal with former chief financial officer Richard Collins.

Ní Raghallaigh neglected in two meetings this week to tell Martin about board approval for the Collins payment, although she took steps to correct the record on Thursday morning. That was not enough for the Minister, whose refusal to express confidence in the chairwoman in a live Prime Time interview was seized upon by the Opposition as a blatant act of summary dismissal.

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The chairwoman was gone within three hours, insisting she told Martin’s department about the “process” behind Collins’s exit the day after the board remuneration committee approved it. The RTÉ board remuneration committee was quick to endorse that account, saying in a Friday statement that Ní Raghallaigh contacted the department secretary general “directly by telephone and updated her about the meeting of the remuneration committee, and its outcome — ie, that it approved an agreement with Richard Collins.”


Martin’s response was to say she discussed the matter on Friday and Thursday with Katherine Licken, secretary general at the time. “She has been clear that while she was informed by phone that the independent mediation process on an exit package for Mr Collins had finally reached a conclusion, she has no recollection of being told that it was approved by the board’s remuneration committee,” said the Minister.

The clash, therefore, has its roots in the recollections of not only Ní Raghallaigh but also Licken. On TV, the Minister accused Ní Raghallaigh of misleading her after the chairwoman belatedly acknowledged she “neglected to recollect” the committee’s involvement at this week’s meetings. In so doing she accepted Licken’s account of having “no recollection” of being told about it the committee in October. Can that be enough to justify Martin’s extraordinary Prime Time intervention on the eve of a meeting she sought with the chairwoman?

After all the damage done to RTÉ in nine restless months of woe, this has all the characteristics of the “very regrettable chaos” that Bakhurst so memorably described in a Friday note to staff.

Fine Gael TD Alan Dillon demanded to be told on Thursday night whether Bakhurst was “in the room” when Ní Raghallaigh “misled” the Minister, implicitly asking whether the director general should have intervened. If that seems a rather obvious question, there was no direct answer from RTÉ itself. Still, the director general made it clear in his staff note that he remains focused on his job “no matter what events overtake the headlines in the short term”.

The remaining independent directors of the board have adopted the same stance, declining, as one high-ranking observer put it, to “yield to the baying wolves”. A board statement said: “In order to avoid any further disruption at this challenging time for RTÉ, the board is committed to continuing to discharge its duties.”

At this point, the stakes could hardly be higher. “The place has to have something in place to run it or else it’s disintegrating,” said an informed source familiar with discussion in the apex of RTÉ. If it is plain to see that the national broadcaster has often seemed close to disintegration in recent months, the board must know its challenge is magnified by a deepening row with the shareholder Minister.

Biting remarks on Friday by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris show that Cabinet anger with RTÉ runs deep and wide: “The RTÉ carousel, this constant saga needs to end. I am so sick and tired of coming into studios like this where all we do in RTÉ is talk about RTÉ.”

The Government has so little trust in RTÉ right now that the prospects of a definitive funding settlement being reached seem ever more remote. That remains the fundamental riddle.

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